Presentations Count -- Tactic #7

Originally published 12/17/10

How often do you get the opportunity to strut your stuff before the top people in the company? We're talking about the ones that are far enough up the food chain that you have limited access to them. Maybe that's a plant manager, or maybe it's the board of directors -- it depends on where you currently sit in the organization.

If you work for a large corporation, I'm guessing the answer is: not much. And I'm also guessing that when you do get some "air time", its probably in the form of some kind of presentation.

Those individuals are the very ones that can make things happen for you. They can think of you when that next big project comes along, or that promotion, or whatever you're capable of doing. It doesn't take a lot of insight to realize those few contacts with the senior people are pretty important.

What you may not realize, however, is how top executives form their opinions about others -- at least most of those who don't report directly to them. So here's the secret -- its 20% based on your objective performance, 30% based on what others are saying about you, and 50% based on direct observations. Okay, maybe the numbers aren't that precise, but you get the idea.

I had a boss who would decide an employee was either a genius or a fool within five minutes of them opening their mouths during a presentation -- and once they fell into the fool category, there was no redeeming them. We can argue about the fairness of his judgments, but like many aspects to corporate power and politics, fair or unfair had no bearing on the reality of the situation. He made those judgments based on an employee's ability to communicate ideas during reviews and presentations in a clear, concise fashion, to speak intelligently, and respond to questions well.

To a greater or lesser degree, pretty much all senior executives do the same thing. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard someone remark "She's smart," after a good presentation, or "He's in over his head" (or something much less kind), after a bad one. Did those senior execs really know their conclusions are correct? No, they extrapolate based on the short snippet of information they gather during a presentation. And the judgment can easily become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The fool is picked apart on every tiny misstep, while the genius is forgiven his errors in consideration of his greater brilliance.

So what do you do in the face of this political reality, my politically neutral friends? The path to success is no great secret -- your presentations must be of the best quality, and wow the audience. To get that to happen, follow these simple steps:

1.) Master the subject you are going to talk about. Make sure your real depth of knowledge on the subject equals or exceeds the most knowledgeable person in the room. Cram if you have to, and understand the theory, too, not just the way it is handled in your organization.

2.) Get your slides and words right! Nobody is impressed by poor grammar, uneducated phrasing, or other silly or careless mistakes. Often times, senior executives will have slide pet peeves. Ask around to figure out what those are. I always disliked the use of 3D graphs, for instance. Getting it right is tough to do on your own -- get some help from others, either professionals or your allies. Even after years of making board level presentations, it took one of my peers to point out to me the frequency with which I used the phrase "obviously".

3.) There are bonus points for introducing fresh or innovative ways of looking at things. These may come from theory, the experiences of other firms, or even right out of your head. They confirm your mastery of the subject, and get the audience thinking in a new way. It isn't necessary to overdue it, however, one new idea per major presentation is plenty.

Presentations are a big deal, and deserve a big application of time and effort. You can miss a lot of smaller stuff in your job, and as long as you get these big events right, your political future will be strengthened.

If you find this series of posts on corporate power and politics interesting, please visit my website to read my article titled Power and Politics.